Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Prelapsarian Paronomasia in Paradise Lost

The Librarian, 1566
Giuseppe Arcimboldo
The Spitting Image of Paronomasia
(Image from Wikipedia)

In an article, "Self-Contradicting Puns in Paradise Lost," John Leonard notes the use of wordplay in the unfallen angel Raphael's language:
The War in Heaven -- a civil war -- causes many words to cleave asunder. Here is Raphael on the novelty of hate in heaven:
strange to us it seemed
At first, that angel should with angel war,
And in fierce hosting meet, who wont to meet
So oft in festivals of joy and love

(VI. 91-5)
'Fierce hosting' is a tautology for the fallen reader, but an oxymoron for Raphael. We readily hear the military sense 'hostile encounter' (OED 'hosting'), but this sense is 'strange' to Raphael, for whom the verb 'host' has hitherto meant 'entertain as a guest' (OED v2 1a) or 'be a guest' (OED v2 2). 'Hosting', for Raphael, implies 'festivals of joy and love', and he hankers after the old meaning even as he steels himself to the new one. There is nothing trivial about this pun, which is based on a real etymological connection. Hostis in Latin can mean either 'enemy' or 'stranger'. Hospes (the root of hospitality) means 'he who entertains a stranger'. (Thomas N. Corns, A Companion to Milton, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, pages 394-395)
Granted, Raphael is using "hosting" in a double, self-contradicting sense to describe fallen circumstances. The term is, as Leonard notes, an oxymoron for the unfallen angel, who uses the word in its acquired sense of "hostile encounter" even while recalling, and preferring, the word in its original sense of to "entertain [someone] as a guest" or to "be a guest." But this double meaning, this pun by Raphael, cannot be 'fallen' language, for this angel, unlike Satan, is unfallen. And note also the possible wordplay implicit in the original meaning of the term "hosting," in which one can either "be a guest" or "entertain [someone] as a guest," neither of which have even a whiff of fallenness. Punning is thus not a defining characteristic of fallen language in Paradise Lost.

Nevertheless, the Fall -- whether Satan's or humanity's -- does alter language, for it makes many words "cleave asunder" and thereby describe opposites, as Leonard goes on to demonstrate in his article, and such alteration exacerbates the deceptive 'power' of language.

In a certain sense, then, one can talk of 'fallen' language, though the fallenness lies more in its use to deceive than its nature as deceptive.

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